Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poetry and Diversity in Chicago

I attended a Symposium a couple of weeks ago at the University of Chicago's Library organized by the David Pavilich, Librarian of poetry and other things, on Poetry in Chicago.

The Event was a celebration of the acquisition of the papers of two Chicago institutions- Flood Editions and Michael Anania. The event was very tweedy-controlled and was set up as a celebration of the acquisition.

I did not stay for the portion by Anania which I understand was excellent- so I am not going to comment on that part but I was there for the Flood Editions portion and I have to say that it caused me to pause and ask a question- is poetry always condemned to be viewed as dilettantism in the USA?

There has always been a conflict in American poetry between the struggling gritty poet; Sandburg, Whitman, Brooks, Williams who lives in the 'world' and the poet dilettante, Pound, Dickinson, Lowell who live in rarefied air and whose engagement with poetry is separate from the grittiness.

During the section of the symposium on Flood Editions I kept asking myself what about Flood is particularly Chicago- apart from the fact that Michael O'Leary one of the editors lives here? Flood tends to publish very interesting poets who are experimental without regard for region and Flood tends to produce books that are really well crafted.

I think that the well crafted part is what makes Flood so Chicago. If you drive around Chicago the thing you notice is the solidity of the buildings. Brick, Stone and Cement. Chicago is not Dallas where the buildings all look like Paper Mac he- it is a solid place and that is what Flood does so well. Their books are well designed and solid. Their editorial choices are solid as well.

But having said all of this there was a waft of tweedy Hyde Park in the symposium.
One attendee asked a very salient question about diversity. This was not addressed and the room needed to have the discussion. I think that the thing that hurts poetry in the United States is lack of class diversity. There is not a lot of difference between a poet who is upper class and happens to be a woman or African American and someone who is of European origin. Yes they are victims of racism/sexism but their position of privilege is still intact. There is less at stake for an upper class poet...

This is what makes Poets like Ed Roberson , Nate Mackey or Mark Nowak so important because they are serious well educated poets whose work is in dialogue with bigger things. I kind of look at Mackey and Roberson are to Poetry as Michelle Obama is the Lawyers they came from normal origins and while they are exceptional- they have not forgotten where they arose.

I hope in the future that Class differences can be discussed in the Chicago Poetry Symposium and that local Chicago poets like Mark Tardi, Kimberly Lojek, Carlos Campian, Francisco Aragon, Ed Roberson and others who come from different class backgrounds and experiences are allowed to dialogue about what diversity really means- and to ask probing questions about the lack of class diversity in poetry.

Having said all this Pavilich needs to be praised for organizing the event- even if it was a little self-congratulatory for the the U of C- the reality is that the the University of Chicago does not really engage with Chicago or its poets and perhaps Pavilich can change this fact. Up to this point there is no place at the U of C that compares to say the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writer's house where the local literary community and the Ivy League can meet on common ground maybe this symposium will lead to that?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Catholic Poets-Catholic Popes

The Pope is visiting the USA this week. We will hear the musings of the chattering class about pedophilia and oppression and those comments and critiques are well deserved. As a Catholic I am ashamed of what happened just as I am ashamed of other things that are done in my name since I ascent to be a member of the Church.

Having said that one of the differences between Catholicism and other groups is that we have a distinct Culture that informs our history as a people. The thing that no megachurch or evangelical group can ever replace is the fact that Catholic Culture gave birth to so much of what makes up our current world. Our community is based in many things and these are not new.

One area of Catholic Culture that is not known- even by Catholics is our poetry. In the USA we Catholics are proud of our fiction writers, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Jack Kerouac and many others but it is in poetry where Catholic culture has given so much to the world.

The origin poetry in Italian and Spanish are profoundly Catholic. The first poetry written in the Italian language was written by Francis of Assisi and Dante. This poetry sits as the origin of that language and it can be argued that the Divine Comedy is the greatest poem ever written apart from the Illiad and the Odyssey.

In Spanish the poetry of John of Cross continues to influence Spanish poetry to this day. It was John of Cross who served as the essential bridge between Moorish Spanish poetry and the poetry of the Americas. There is no poet writing in Spanish who has not been influenced by John.

There are many contemporary poets who are identified as Catholic. Gerard Manley Hopkins who many see as the progenitor of Modernism. Czeslaw Milosz who made poetry of the Slavic world and the Iron Curtain real for the 20th Century. Thomas Merton and William Everson whose work brought the journey to American audiences and Gabriella Mistral the Nobel Lauriate who brought personal inner poetry to the world. It could also be argued that Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda and Ottavio Paz could be classified as Catholic culturally- the Church and its culture fill their work.

Why is this important? Because in most cases religion in the United States is more like a drive through restaurant than a feast. We fill up on Bible and emotion and then go back to the grind that is our lives. But Catholics and others whose religion have a culture have so much more to draw from. As Mozart said "to leave the Church would mean that I could not recieve the Eucharist in the great Cathedrals and that thought is intolerable". That is also how I feel about our poets and writers. Many concervatives want to boil down the Faith to practices and devotions but Catholicism is more than that it is a Culture a Culture that most of my brethern do not even know exists.

To be separated from these poets- well the thought is intolerable. But many will say why? Why be a member of this Church that does so many bad things (which is does). Mostly because life is not a drive through window- it is work and to leave would be easy.

I think that too many poets today are based not in a history or culture but in their own narcissism and that has made their work too personal and too stale. It is in the contradictions that we are made new again. So I remain angry but obedient-

So as the Pope visits us- I will choose the poets.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Violence is our Currency

Violence is our currency. We as a species thrive on violence and while we laud prophets of non-violence and peace we also revile them as well.

I keep thinking about this China Olympics thing and the amount of money these protests are causing major sponsors. The Tibetian cause has been dubbed a "wine and cheese" protest but I think it is something bigger.

China has become the enabler of violence in our world, while the USA is the actor of violence. Not all violence is military. The destruction of industries and the loss of jobs in many parts of the world to China's near slave labor conditions is a insidious as any military war. We have chosen to prefer violence to non-violence in the way we buy and in the way we live.

Our societies have always loved and reviled non-violent prophets. Martin Luther King was murdered as was Gandhi. Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day in my own tradition are ignored or attacked because they refused to agree that violence of war or economic injustice were acceptable and of course Jesus was Crucified.

When I see uniformed Chinese policemen fighting with protestors in the US or Europe I have to ask the question? Why can't we say the truth about injustice and violence? The reason is because we do not have the moral authority to do so- we are complicit in violence. Violence makes our lives easier- violence is our currency.

Friday, April 4, 2008

World Poetry versus American Poetry

It has been said that Americans are the most isolated people in the world because they dwell thousands of miles away from everyone else separated by oceans. I think this is BS since Brazilians, Argentines and Indians dwell as far away as Americans do and they are not isolated.

I think that in our poetics in the USA our problem is American Exceptional ism. World Poetry is in dialogue with the globe American poetry is not.

A good example of this is that there is a profound dialogue between Brazilian poets that I know and some American literary stars like Charles Bernstein but this need to encounter the world has not trickled down to poets at lower rungs.

A recent Myopic Reading here in Chicago featured poets Mark Tardi and Daniel Borzutsky who have done great translation work.
Aufgabe and Circumferance Magazines do a great job but I think
thousands of Americans get MFA's each year and only a small
minority read world literature. We spend too much time facebooking and blogging and not enough time reading.

I had a great conversation last month with Kristen Dykstra a professor at Illinois State who manages Mandorla. Prof. Dykstra has foregone her poetry to do this important work of bringing Latin American poetry to the USA. But the problem is much deeper. MFA programs are predicated on specialization. They are like MBA's for writers they remove broad knowledge in favor of craft. These programs normally do not encourage deep reading and they feed a culture of specialization that is unreal- I wonder how many budding poets quit to get real jobs? Wasting the money they spent on the MFA.

As a business person I have always been attracted to European business people because they are so diverse. I have known global business leaders who are sculptors, painters and poets. This is a real rarity in the USA. But diversity of thought is also a real rarity among American poets.
I can think of only a few younger poets who are interested in these things; John Tipton, William Allegrezza, Johannes Gorensson, Mark Tardi, Jen Hofer, Jen Scappettone, Kristin Dykstra while there are so many working on their own work which in many cases will be read by only a few people within our poetic world.

I think the challenge is to expand that poetic world to more. America's influence is weaker in a global world and we need to embrace that the world has allot to offer. Deep reading is what is needed and less poetic politicking. In the end the game players will win but at least I have made my argument for reading more, writing better and maybe talking less about ourselves.